Polly Jean Harvey is an artist in a constant state of evolution. Those who signed up for the PJ Harvey Fan Club after hearing 1992’s volcanic album Dry have happily gone along for the ride as she tries on new styles (music, clothes) and new moods (raucous, melancholic, ecstatic). Few artists can hold on to a devoted fan base no matter whether they are fashioning a folk tale (1995’s “Down by the Water”), embracing full-throated politics (2011’s Let England Shake), or playing the hurdy-gurdy (2016’s The Hope Six Demolition Project). This last effort was a vast multimedia project that included an album recorded behind one-way glass in Somerset House in London, as the public looked on, and was followed by a volume of poems, a collection of photographs, and a Seamus Murphy–directed film, A Dog Called Money, which documented the making of the record. It was a leveling up, but also just another stepping stone for the enigmatic artist in her continual reinvention, in which she somehow always stays just so fucking cool.
What’s clear, though, is that her creativity cannot be contained in one medium. In addition to her ten studio albums, she crafted the score for the series Bad Sisters, and her songs were heavily featured on the soundtrack for the second season of Peaky Blinders. She’s published two books of poetry: 2015’s The Hollow of the Hand and 2022’s Orlam, an ambitious book-length poem written after studying with Scottish poet Don Paterson and learning the dialect of her home county. Dorset is located on the coast of England, and is not only where Harvey grew up and currently resides, but also home to the nineteenth-century poet William Barnes, who wrote in the Dorset dialect and inspired Orlam. The not exactly autobiographical poem is set there, albeit in an imaginary village called Underwhelem. It follows nine-year-old Ira-Abel and her guardian, Orlam, an all-seeing lamb’s eyeball. Despite its strangeness, it is a surprisingly relatable and absorbing volume. Harvey doesn’t seem quite ready to leave that place behind. Her 2023 album, I Inside the Old Year Dying, takes listeners deeper into the world of Orlam while simultaneously exploring intimate landscapes and enormous topics like love and connection. We chatted via Zoom (camera off) about music, language, ghosts, and the correct order for cream and jam on scones.
I. “The Gift Is That It Becomes Yours”
THE BELIEVER: Last year I went to Sweden to listen to a geo-locked ghost story that you can hear only in the Swedish woods, and it made me think about how important place is when you’re listening to things. I was reminded of that with your album. I feel like Dorset is kind of a character in the album and in the poetry book, or at least greatly influences it. Do you think that’s true?
PJ HARVEY: Everyone feels differently about things, don’t they? But speaking personally, when I am reading a book or listening to a piece of music, I tend to put my own place on it, depending on what I’m feeling. And I think, with regards to the album I Inside the Old Year Dying, or even the book Orlam, I would hope the reader or the listener situates it in the place that feels right for them and their lives. So for me, it doesn’t have to specifically be about Dorset. It could be anywhere, really. I wanted it to be a universal place to come into, and then you just bring your own landscape in with you.
BLVR: Do you think that people who listen in Dorset, or those who are really familiar with the place, might get a different sense of the work than someone living elsewhere?
PJH: Not necessarily. I mean, a lot of the people that live in Dorset don’t know the Dorset dialect. I might as well have been writing in a different language altogether, or making up a language, some of which I did, in fact. I think it’s open to anyone to come in and engage with the book or the album. The album is not about anything specific in terms of place. It’s a much more universally themed album about love and loss and childhood, and searching for meaning in life—as we all try to do. Love itself is the overarching theme.
BLVR: You wrote some of your poems and lyrics in the Dorset language. Is this something you have always known, or is it something you had to go and learn?
PJH: I had to go and learn it. I knew a few words from childhood. I remember some of the older people in the village speaking it. But I had to really go and learn and study. It came to me quite easily, maybe because it was in my blood somewhere, I don’t know. But then I think a lot of the words, the sounds of them are quite sensical, if you know what I mean. They sound like what they are, so they’re quite easy to remember.
BLVR: Oh yes, like I can almost understand Dutch after I’ve had a drink. Where does one learn Dorset? Who was your teacher?
PJH: William Barnes. The great William Barnes, long dead, but still probably the greatest poet in the Dorset language, other than Thomas Hardy. He was a poet from the 1800s, and he went about collecting the Dorset-dialect words into a dictionary, I think because he foresaw that it was going to die out. And he wrote in dialect himself. He was also a preacher and walked from town to town preaching. Quite a character. There still exist some beautiful photographs of him in the Dorset Museum.
BLVR: I’m going to guess you were not taught by a ghost, so did you learn from his books?
PJH: From the books, yes, which you can still get in print.
BLVR: It sounds really difficult to learn a whole language that way.
PJH: Well, my lyrics and poems, they’re not entirely in dialect. There’s a lot of regular, recognizable English words in there. You don’t have to know the Dorset dialect to know what’s going on. It’s more just reaching for a deeper, guttural sort of beauty that I find in them. But also I so love listening to songs in languages I don’t understand. I listen to a lot of music from foreign countries that I find utterly beautiful. I don’t feel I need to understand the language to feel its beauty and be very moved by it. On the other hand, there’s a lot of English singer-songwriters who I often can’t understand what they’re saying, and I kind of make it up in my head anyway. So I don’t think it really matters. If the emotion is there, it’s there and you feel it.
BLVR: I always mishear lyrics and kind of love it!
PJH: I love making it up myself. You know, you come up with all sorts of crazy things that you can never get out of your system.
BLVR: Yes, and I love speaking with artists and finding out that I’ve completely misinterpreted one of their songs for years.
PJH: Yes, but that’s the beauty of it, I think. The gift is that it becomes yours. It becomes the listeners’. It becomes the readers’. And you make it your own. And as an artist, I love letting go of it. I wrote the song in the way I understood it, and then I let go. And it doesn’t matter, because however it comes across to other people is absolutely right, whatever they find in it.
BLVR: Oh, that’s beautiful, and I’m glad to know some people don’t mind that.
PJH: Not at all. I think the most beautiful part of listening to music is making it your own, hearing what you hear in it.
BLVR: Do you feel like by working in the Dorset dialect, you were working to preserve it? Do you feel at all like you needed to preserve it?
PJH: Yes. That was on my mind as well: trying to preserve this beautiful language that comes from a very specific, very small area of the world. And if I could do my part to somehow keep a record of that, then I wanted to. And it feels really good now, having Orlam out there, having I Inside the Old Year Dying out there in the world, because those things will live on after I’m dead and gone, and after the dialect’s dead and gone. They’ll still be there and people will still go back and find it.
BLVR: You also mentioned that you made up some of your own words.
PJH: Yes, that’s right. I think it’s a writer’s prerogative. If you can’t find the word you need, make it up. That’s how language comes into being, right?
BLVR: That’s true. I mean, think about the word amazeballs, which did not exist at all a few years ago.
PJH: [Laughs] Right. And where would we be without that word?
II. “The Black Hole Says It All”
BLVR: I feel like the supernatural comes up a lot in Orlam, and I was just curious: Do you believe in ghosts?
PJH: I definitely feel there’s something beyond our usual comprehension as human beings. There’s something beyond my understanding, which I occasionally get glimpses of. It’s hard to say, isn’t it? When I think of the times in our lives, in human beings’ lives, when we feel like everything just stops and changes—at a death, at a birth, at a near-death experience—I feel like there’s almost a portal that opens up where you can see there’s something more than this, more than our usual day-to-day understanding. I think I’ve got to glimpse that realm at certain times in my life, during those moments of great transformation that we all go through at some point. But there are also other times that can be transformative for me. Like when you’re in the act of creation, in the act of playing, in the act of singing, or in an act of great peace or meditation, then you might also get a glimpse of these things. Or when you’re simply being overwhelmed by natural beauty. If you’re at a place of unbelievable natural beauty, like standing at the edge of the Grand Canyon or something, you get these little portals where you realize there’s more than this. So going back to ghosts: yeah, I think absolutely there’s more than what we usually see in our day-to-day lives.
BLVR: I fully agree. Also, it would be so boring to live in a world where we’re the only things.
PJH: I think there’s so much more that we lost along the way in our development. I don’t know, but I think the more in touch we are with nature and with the root of our arrival, the more we are in touch with that other realm, which has a greater understanding, a greater spirituality and sensitivity.
BLVR: Here in the US, Congress just had hearings on aliens, and it’s now in the Congressional Record that aliens are probably real, and we’re probably not the only ones. I just find it so interesting.
PJH: I heard that, too, and, likewise, I found it interesting. Lately I’ve been extremely fascinated by black holes and the universe. If you’ve ever gone looking into black holes deeply, oh my gosh. I mean, talk about mind-boggling.
BLVR: Yes. They’re so weird.
PJH: It kind of links into what we’re saying, though. The end is the beginning. The beginning is the end. That’s another theme of Orlam. But there you go. The black hole says it all.
BLVR: It’s also so lonely to think we are the only things in the entire universe.
PJH: Yes. It doesn’t make much sense, does it? When you think of how big the universe is, to think that we are the only sort of intelligent life form here.
BLVR: Have you ever watched The X-Files?
BLVR: The star David Duchovny was at a benefit event recently, and someone asked him about aliens. He shared his theory that aliens send us the perverts only because so many people have alien abduction stories that involve getting probed, and I just love that idea.
BLVR: I feel like black holes are more mysterious than intergalactic perverts. When you’re reading things about space or the universe, do you feel like all that can inform your work?
PJH: Everything I come across that’s new all somehow goes into the well of me. And that might turn around and come out as a piece of work at some point.
BLVR: How do you go about learning new things? Is it just that something piques your interest and you go explore it?
PJH: It’s hard to explain. I feel drawn to things quite naturally and just sort of follow where I feel I need to look in quite a natural way. It’s not preplanned, premeditated. And usually one book or one thing I’ve read leads to another, leads to another. Same with programs I might have watched, or documentaries or exhibitions I’ve seen. It’s following one’s intuition, gut instinct, and just following where it takes you.
BLVR: Do you listen to the radio?
PJH: I listen to a lot of radio. I listen to a lot of internet radio because you can find some really out-there stations that play the most unusual music. That’s actually where I get a lot of my inspiration from, and that’s where I find a lot of new artists I want to explore. But there are also some wonderful radio programs here in the UK, particularly on Radio 6 and Radio 3, that you find late at night. There are often some really unusual channels that play things you’d never find by day. I do a lot of exploration of the radio waves. I keep my ear to the ground. I also read a lot of reviews. I think, Oh, that sounds interesting. Then I’ll go and check that out. I see a lot of shows that interest me after reading about them, not knowing anything about the artist. It’s not like I do it before my work to find better work. I just enjoy and thrive on learning something new, and therefore I very naturally want to do that.
III. Learning from the Masters
BLVR: I read that you studied poetry for three years. Did people ever recognize you at school, in your poetry classes?
PJH: If they did, they were very polite about not saying so. I think also in those situations, people are there to learn. We’re all there for the same reason. It’s a great leveling base, so it doesn’t really matter. We’re all there just to study.
BLVR: How did you choose your poetry teacher?
PJH: Well, he chose me, really. Don Paterson is a wonderful poet from Scotland. He actually came to one of the poetry classes I was a member of and did a weekend workshop in London. I got to meet him there, and we exchanged some poems. He liked my work and offered to help me edit some of it. Through that editing, I realized what an amazing teacher he was, and we became friends. Then he offered to help edit my first book, The Hollow of the Hand. After we’d worked on that together, he offered me a mentorship course. Don was teaching at [University of] St. Andrews at the time—he often took on two or three mentorship courses a year—where he would really watch over the shoulder of a poet as they developed their practice. He offered me that mentorship course, and I said yes.
BLVR: How does a poetry mentorship course work? Would he give you a topic or subject, or do you just go and write?
PJH: It’s really like being back in the university-degree situation, where you have a lot of study work, a lot of set reading. You have a lot of set tasks to do and poems to write. You hand in your work and then you meet with your teacher and you look up what worked, what didn’t work, what you could do better. I’d have lectures on the evolution of poetry over the last one hundred, two hundred years or so. Things like that.
BLVR: I assume you were living at home and you didn’t have to go live on campus in a dorm?
PJH: I was at home, but Don and I would meet in London or Scotland.
BLVR: And he would give you homework?
PJH: Yeah, lots of homework. We did very little by Zoom, which was refreshing to me. We’d often meet in person, in real time, and we’d have, like, a four-hour session together. And then, in between times, I’d send him poems through the internet to look at. And then he would look at them and send them back.
BLVR: I admit I basically dropped out of art school because I didn’t like being told that paintings or drawings were wrong. I don’t like feeling that personal expression is wrong or that you should be graded on it. So how did that work for you? Would he give you critiques? Would he say, Oh no, that’s completely incorrect. Use this word instead?
PJH: I think you can be told that in poetry, or in any art form, actually, it’s a craft and you need to learn it. You learn from the greats. You learn from the masters. You learn from the teachers that have gone before you. You can have your personal voice, but you still need to learn the craft. It’s no good just having a personal voice and writing in a not-very-good way. There’s a lot to be learned from study, hard work, study.
BLVR: Would he have you read only the great poets, or would he also have you read really mediocre ones so you could learn, Don’t do that?
PJH: He had me read a lot of work, and some of it was not good work, so I could see why it wasn’t good. In critiquing my own work, he’d really explain why what I was doing was not as good as it could be, and he’d show me how it could be better. And I found that really enthralling and exciting. I never took it as a slight upon myself. It was always just very exciting to see how I could improve.
BLVR: Did you ever have to write a rhyming poem?
PJH: Many times, yes. You can get a lot across in a rhyming poem because the rhyme somehow already ties it up and makes it seem right. So you can say all sorts of wrong things in a poem that rhymes, and people will still think you’re right.
IV. Tandem Work
BLVR: In addition to poetry and your own music, you’ve also been doing a lot of musical scoring. That was a terrible segue. Just go with it.
PJH: [Laughs] Yeah. I really enjoy working with visual images or in theater. I love working with actors. I have so much respect for them. I love working with directors—theater, film, TV directors. So it’s an absolute joy. I’d love to do more because it’s lovely to collaborate and to be one part of a whole, of making something great if you can.
BLVR: How do you approach working from a visual image versus creating your own album from scratch? How do you approach scoring?
PJH: If we’re talking about film and TV, it’s good to have the information about the scene. It’s quite good to know the script and to know what’s happened before and after. It’s quite good to chat with the director about what they’re wanting to capture at that moment in time, or what they’re wanting to capture in the overall soundtrack. You have to have quite a lot of talk beforehand with the directors about that. I really enjoy trying to meet their wishes, because it makes me explore areas of my own composition that I probably wouldn’t have gone into otherwise.
BLVR: Are there directors you’d like to work with?
PJH: Oh yes, many. I hope that will happen one day, but I think that also comes from the work you’ve done. People see what you have done, and if they like it, they might reach out.
BLVR: How did you come to work on Bad Sisters?
PJH: Sharon Horgan reached out to me, and I said yes before I saw anything, because I’m a huge fan of her work, always have been. I always want to follow what she’s doing. So that was a great thrill. And we’ve just started talking about Bad Sisters 2, so that’s more excitement in the future.
BLVR: Who are they going to kill this time?
PJH: I’m not telling you.
BLVR: Fair. Sharon Horgan is one of those actors who… I just want her to be my friend.
PJH: Yeah, you would, because she’s a terrific person and she’s lovely to be around. And she is very funny.
BLVR: Typical. Going back to other directors, do you want to name some names? Maybe we can manifest working with them for you?
PJH: I don’t know. That feels a bit… I don’t want to be trying to say, Work with me! Work with me! But I have some favorite filmmakers. People like Paul Thomas Anderson, or Yorgos Lanthimos, Jonathan Glazer, Quentin Tarantino, Céline Sciamma. I could go on. Jane Campion. Joanna Hogg. I love their work, but I think what will be, will be. Directors have to choose the right composer for the type of film they’re making. And a lot of those directors I’ve just named already have really great relationships with composers. I can understand that they would want to keep working with those people. You know, Jon Glazer works with Mica Levi a lot. Paul Thomas Anderson works with Jonny Greenwood, et cetera, et cetera.
BLVR: Oh! I’ve interviewed Mica. They’re amazing, but now I’m concerned I’ve mispronounced their name.
PJH: I’m never sure quite how to pronounce their name. I think it’s Mica? I’m not sure.
BLVR: I thought it was Mica.
PJH: You’re right: it’s Mica. Mica Levi.
BLVR: Well, this is print, so we will not be setting the record straight here. Do you feel like that’s a direction you’d like to go in your career, just doing more…
PJH: More soundtrack work?
BLVR: Yeah. Thank you for finishing my sentence.
PJH: I see it in tandem with my own songwriting work and my poetry work. It’s not like something I want to just go into from now on. I see it as part of some of the other things I do, and I’m always open to it.
BLVR: I have read several interviews with you that make it seem like people sometimes just approach you with things, and you’re like, Oh yeah, that sounds fun. Let’s do that. Do you think that’s true?
PJH: No. It has to resonate with me. I’m often asked to contribute to things, but if it doesn’t resonate with me, then I politely decline. I only work on things that I feel will have great meaning for me, and that I can therefore find moving and contribute some good work to.
V. Cream First, Jam Second
BLVR: I feel like people sometimes forget that you’re a real person and instead think of you as Artist PJ Harvey, an image. But you go to class, you watch Quentin Tarantino movies, you’re very much a real person as well. Do you feel like people forget sometimes?
PJH: I think that’s something we all do. I think I do the same with great artists that I love. You don’t often imagine they do those small things that we all have to do, but yeah, I’m just a regular person. I really am.
BLVR: It seems like you’re also very good at boundaries. You don’t do very many interviews, and after this one I’m sure you’ll never do another. Do you feel like that separation between performance and the personal is important for you?
PJH: That’s a difficult one to answer, because I don’t feel like I become different people. I’m still Polly whether I’m performing or whether I’m with a friend or reading a book at home, you know? I don’t feel like I become a different person. At the same time, I guess what you’re asking about is boundaries, and I do protect myself. I know when I’m overreaching, when I need to draw back a bit and have some quiet time.
BLVR: What do you do in your free time? It sounds like you have so many interests. And how do you distinguish between work research and learning just for fun?
PJH: They all sort of teach each other because I have fun just learning. You could say it’s all research—every book I read, every exhibition I see. It doesn’t feel like I’m going out and doing hard study. But it’s hard work. You have to really put in the hours. And I do that. I’m a very conscientious worker and I work hard to create the works that I have. But then the things that might inform them are quite joyful for me to do—like practicing scales, or learning new chords, trying to get better at the piano, reading about things I never knew about, watching documentaries. It’s that part I enjoy. It’s hard work, but I enjoy it too.
BLVR: Oh, I agree. I love learning things. Like I just learned how to fix a broken sink, and now I want to learn more.
PJH: It’s very rewarding, too, isn’t it? When you learn how to do something practical like that, you really feel you’ve achieved something.
BLVR: Are you on TikTok at all?
BLVR: I love TikTok because it is filled with useful skills that I did not know I needed.
PJH: Yeah, yes.
BLVR: What does the TikTok algorithm give you? Like what videos show up?
PJH: Well, like you said, I think it’s a place to immediately get any information that you want in a very simple way. And that’s good for me.
BLVR: Yeah. I love recipes. I love dog videos. I’ll take any of them. Are you on other social media?
BLVR: And do you enjoy it or do you find it sort of a time suck? Both?
PJH: Both. I think we can all get sucked into that, can’t we? And you have to kind of draw yourself out of it again. But I think it’s also a great place to find information. And it’s good to see what other people are doing. I don’t think of it as a bad thing at all. Obviously, there are some things that are bad on it. I’m not referring to that.
BLVR: Do you have any guilty pleasures?
PJH: Guilty pleasures? I can’t think of anything. If I think of anything, I’ll let you know. I probably do and I’m just not going to tell you.
BLVR: That is fair. I mean, not everyone needs to know about your addiction to Forensic Files, right? Is there anything else you’d like to talk about?
PJH: Um. Ooh.
BLVR: Ah, now I made your brain go blank. Perfect.
PJH: Now we’re going to be silent before the end of it. Well, I’m just looking forward to playing some shows. We’re about to go out on tour through Europe with I Inside the Old Year Dying, and we’ll be coming to the States next year. Really looking forward to that and to now being able to actually meet and perform with people.
BLVR: Because you’re from Dorset, do you believe in putting jam on your scone first, then cream—or cream, then jam?
PJH: I think I’m a cream, then jam kind of person.
BLVR: Really? That seems so difficult. Doesn’t the cream just squish everywhere?
PJH: No, no. You kind of have to hold it so the jam doesn’t run off. But that’s all part of the fun and enjoyment.
BLVR: That sounds very sticky. Well, I know what my afternoon plans are now.
PJH: But you didn’t ask about Dorset apple cake, did you?
BLVR: What is Dorset apple cake?
PJH: I think it kind of supersedes the scone.
BLVR: Really? OK.
PJH: Probably the most Dorset dish. Yeah.
BLVR: Well, I bet they have a recipe on TikTok.